As the losses mount and the frustration inside the locker room grows, the final six games of the 2013 regular season could loom as a referendum on Mike Shanahan's tenure as coach of the Washington Redskins.
At 3-7 after a 24-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday and in danger of missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, Shanahan and his staff are tasked with keeping their players in a positive frame of mind while negativity swirls around them.
"You've got to look at a number of things when you take a look at the direction of a football team," Shanahan said. "When you take a look at the offensive numbers, that just doesn't happen naturally with a lot of new players [six] ... especially with losing $36 million salary cap over those two years' timeframe."
Indeed, salary cap penalties imposed by the NFL have hampered Washington's ability to add depth through free agency. But that excuse does little to help the Redskins right now. It's up to the current roster to hold things together and give the current regime the chance to make necessary upgrades this offseason, because a weak finish could spell an end to Shanahan's tenure.
He has one year left on a five-year contract signed before the 2010 season but on Monday again declined to discuss his future.
"I don't talk about those things during the season for obvious reasons," Shanahan said.
So do the Redskins have veteran leaders capable of holding their team together? After the Eagles game, in the visitors' locker room at Lincoln Financial Field, there were snippets of that.
Offensive linemen Tyler Polumbus and Kory Lichtensteiger gently implored teammate Trent Williams to stop ranting to the media about the referees, one of whom allegedly cursed him during the game. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon made the same point from across the room, but far more emphatically. A fine from the NFL is likely headed Williams' way.
Fullback Darrel Young simply smiled at a reporter in the aftermath of Williams' shocking comments and said "I got nothing for you." Still, he later spoke to wave after wave of reporters for 15 minutes.
"No one gave up in this locker room," Young said. "That's all you can count on at this point."
Indeed, the Redskins were down 24-0 early in the fourth quarter and still had a chance late to score and go for a two-point conversion to send the game to overtime. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall struggled to explain why different things seem to go wrong in each game, why Washington always seems to start slow.
"Each week is something different we're trying to overcome and trying to get out the hole," Hall said. "It's just a different problem to deal with, week in and week out. We come in here and we try to make adjustments. We try to game plan and get it right."
Tight end Logan Paulsen then spoke of being "professionals" in a difficult situation. Linebacker Brian Orakpo defended his teammates even as he admitted that a 3-7 record was unacceptable.
"We're not packing anything in, you know? We lost the game, but we lost some of our key, big-time playmakers, and it's huge for guys to come in and [make] plays," Orakpo said. "You've got a young guy on the practice squad like Nick Williams coming in and not losing a step, making plays. You've got Logan filling in for our playmaker, [tight end] Jordan Reed. You name it. It goes across the board, and guys continue to fight."
Players talked again about how hard they practice, how accountable they make each other. And, to be fair, the fourth-quarter rally showed a team willing to act on those words. Credit is due for fighting back into a game that appeared over.
But this is also the NFL. That's not good enough. And several players in the room acknowledged that. Still, this sentiment from defensive coordinator Jim Haslett last Thursday wasn't uncommon Sunday.
"I love the way our guys practice and they're into it. Teams that are going downhill don't practice the way we practice," Haslett said. "Those teams are negative. We don't have that here."
That's not entirely true. Wide receiver/returner Josh Morgan, inactive on Sunday, refused to talk to the media other than a few offhanded comments and was visbly angry.
"I'm not allowed to talk to anybody. That's what [Shanahan] said," Morgan said. He later used stronger words than that on his way out the door, leaving teammates who heard him taken aback. It was pure frustration from a player who began the year as a starter.
And so the Redskins will wrestle with all of this negativity over these last six games. But in this case the direction of the franchise may depend on the players themselves fending it off. Do they have it in them?
"Two games in a row we fell short in the fourth quarter and I'm disappointed that we did lose those games," Shanahan said. "But I also tried to explain to the team that if we had won those games everybody would be talking the other direction. So it's a fine line. You've got to believe in yourself."
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